The premium burger boom has taken hold in Chicago, with alternate proteins differentiating menus — this Cuban “frita” pork burger is one such example. Photo courtesy of gordon food service. The Windy City is experiencing a confluence of burgers, breakfasts, bar snacks and better-for-you
By Gerry Ludwig
For some time now, we have referred to Chicago as the “flavor first responder,” as the city’s chefs are often the quickest to adapt and interpret the new ideas, innovations and flavor twists that emanate from America’s premier trend-driving town, New York City.
However, one area in which Chicago is considered a leader is molecular gastronomy, due in large part to chef Grant Achatz, whose restaurant Alinea has been consistently rated as one of the world’s top ten restaurants. His latest venture, Next, whose entire theme and menu changes quarterly, is currently the hottest ticket in the city. And now Achatz is planning to open branches of his molecular gastronomy-based cocktail lounge, Aviary, on both U.S. coasts and overseas.
Of course, Achatz’ cuisine fits a particularly rarified, upscale niche. In the mainstream, it is the city’s street food, casual restaurants, gastropubs and bars that are the predominant drivers of Chicago’s growing culinary diversity.
That diversity now even extends to its drugstores — or at least one. The groundbreaking Walgreens’ flagship store in The Loop is equal parts pharmacy and culinary destination, equipped with a sushi bar, on-site bakery, barista, juice bar, salumeria and cheese station, humidor, and a fine wine and liquor selection featuring more than 700 bottles, including rare scotches and cognacs carrying four-figure price tags. This may be the only place in the country where one can purchase an artisanal quality foie gras terrine and cholesterol-reducing statin pills in one stop.
In the fast-casual and casual segments, Chicago has recently experienced a burger explosion. Over the past year, no fewer than six new concepts specializing in premium burgers have emerged, giving further evidence that the American diner’s search for the next great burger continues unabated.
As is so often the case with Chicago being the “first responder,” the generous size, presentation and quality of the burgers closely resemble those that took New York City by storm during the big burger wave of the past five years at Manhattan restaurants such as Stand, Zaitzeff, DBGB and Minetta Tavern. But there are distinct differences in the approach these new burger joints are taking that clearly differentiate them from their East coast predecessors.
One of the defining elements of the New York big burger has been the “custom grind,” highly specific and often proprietary blends of aged whole-muscle beef cuts that are significantly more flavorful than conventional grinds. And while a few Chicago spots offer a custom grind, the majority of menus highlight burgers made exclusively from grass-fed beef.
While the primary benefit of the custom grind lies in its rich, bold flavor, grass-fed burgers appeal to those seeking a more healthful and presumably humane option. Grass-fed cattle are generally pastured rather than confined to feed lots, and the meat has been shown to contain significantly higher amounts of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than those finished on a grain-based diet.
Fast-casual newcomer Burger Point calls its grass-fed product “the healthiest beef on the planet.” The tagline at DMK Burger Bar proclaims “exceptional quality, grass-fed beef.” Grange Hall Burger Bar exclusively serves a “grass-fed, farm-raised burger,” and the signature grind at Butcher & The Burger is “grass-fed prime beef.” From a flavor standpoint, grass-fed burgers don’t possess the over-the-top richness of a custom grind, but the taste is usually a noticeable step above conventional products.
Another notable enhancement on Chicago burger menus is the much wider variety of protein options available beyond ground beef. All of the new venues offer the obligatory turkey burger, but many are also creating uniquely flavorful burgers from pork, lamb, chicken thigh, sausage grinds, seafood — including salmon, tuna, catfish and shrimp — and game such as elk and venison. Vegan burgers are also evolving, being made primarily in-house, and avoiding soy products in favor of blends containing fresh vegetables and whole grains.
And as the city’s burgers take on a bit of a healthy halo, restaurateurs targeting the vast multitude of Loop office workers seeking a more nutritious respite from fast food lunches are scoring big with new and growing concepts overtly marketing better-for-you menus.
Native Foods Café opened its first restaurant in Los Angeles in 1994 offering a strictly vegan menu of housemade, plant-based proteins, including tofu, tempeh and seitan served in a wide variety of flavorful sandwich, salad, pizza and entrée variations. Over the years, the business has grown to 10 locations in California, Oregon and Colorado. So, while the concept is not new news, last year’s move into the Midwest with the opening of a unit in Chicago’s Loop can certainly be considered validation of the growing demand for healthier dining options.
Certainly the most exciting development in better-for-you dining in the city is Protein Bar, the Chicago born-and-bred brainchild of foodservice sales rep-turned-restaurateur Matt Matros, who saw an opportunity to meet the demands of health-conscious downtown office workers whose access to more nutritious breakfast and lunch options had been quite limited. Not only has Protein Bar been highly successful — quickly growing to five Loop locations and two recently opened units in Washington, D.C. — the concept has developed a cult-like following of rabidly loyal fans who make frequent dining visits part of their overall eating plan.
Protein Bar has been called “the restaurant that quinoa built,” as the ancient grain is the central ingredient in the majority of menu items. The quinoa-based dishes provide a major point of menu differentiation, and based on the many customer testimonials posted on the company’s website, many Chicagoans place high value on having an outlet for these nutritious meals nearby.
The menu contains three categories: hot and cold sandwich wraps called bar-ritos, quinoa bowls and salads containing either tossed fresh greens or a combination of greens and quinoa.
The first principle in Protein Bar’s mission statement is to provide “healthy food with a flavor focus,” and a wide variety of popular flavors are pulled through each menu category, including Buffalo, barbecue, Italian, Greek and Southwest. While many of the dishes contain meat, all of the bowls and salads are offered in vegan forms. Meats are organic and free range or pastured, and the housemade salad dressings contain either flaxseed oil or chia seeds, both rich in Omega-3s.
Protein Bar’s success in appealing to the large captive audience in Chicago’s business district that have burned out on fast food stands as testimony to the opportunity that exists to provide better-for-you fare in other city cores containing high numbers of daytime diners.
Chicago chefs are also creating differentiation by taking the concept of “breakfast all day” in new directions, and the creativity seen in their dishes can be a source of inspiration for brunch menus everywhere.
Rather than the usual approach of extending the offering of traditional egg or pancake dishes into the latter dayparts, chef Jeffrey Mauro of restaurant Jam turns the tables, creating deliciously clever riffs on breakfast fare that contain ingredients normally only found on dinner menus.
Served until 9:00 p.m. each day, Mauro’s breakfast menu features buttermilk biscuits with crimini mushroom gravy and pickled cauliflower; a unique soft-boiled, sausage-wrapped and deep-fried Scotch egg served atop a tarragon waffle and garnished with candied rhubarb; and fried sunny-side eggs with pork liver terrine and sweet and sour cabbage.
Similarly, chef Gregory Ellis of Two Sparrows adds creative twists to his all-day breakfast/brunch menu with a crispy pork belly biscuit sandwich topped with pickled red onions and a sunny-side egg; a signature Benedict with crunchy cubes of pancetta and contrasting sour orange and Aleppo pepper hollandaise sauces; “Pop-Tarts” filled with foie gras mousse; and flaky biscuits with lamb sausage gravy and housemade tater tots.
Breakfast all day is given yet another refresh at Waffles, whose eponymous main ingredient is served in a wide array of savory and sweet dishes. Menu items are based on either a Belgian-style waffle or a dense, crunchy variation laced with caramelized sugar known as the Liège waffle. Flavorful additions are mixed into the base batters to create menu signatures such as savory spinach, four-year-aged cheddar, or bacon waffles, and sweet varieties flavored with green tea, seasonal berries or Mexican chocolate.
Belgian waffle batter is
the basis of a meal, from savory to sweet, and in creative takes like this red velvet confection. Photo courtesy of gordon food service. SNACK POWER
The trend in small, shareable dishes in Chicago’s casual and casual upscale restaurants is so entrenched that local dining critic Julia Kramer recently declared that “small plates have reached a saturation point at which they are no longer a trend — they simply are.”
The staying power of small plates is directly linked to consumer demand for greater variety and flavor in their dining experiences. Following a trend that began in the gastropubs of New York City, many of Chicago’s new restaurants have further expanded diner choice by adding highly flavored, inexpensive bar snacks to their menus.
Uniquely flavored popcorn has become a ubiquitous snack across the city. Most famous is Revolution Brewing Company’s bacon popcorn, loaded with crunchy bacon bits and tossed with shredded Parmesan and fried sage leaves. The popcorn at gastropub Three Aces is tossed with garlic butter and Asiago, and Public House flavors theirs with cracked black pepper and truffle oil.
Public House also fries giant Peruvian corn kernels for delicious housemade corn nuts flavored with ground chiles and fresh lime juice, as does the British-themed Bangers & Lace, tossing theirs with chiles and smoked salt.
Paris Club offers unique bar snacks such as fried duck cracklings served with a spicy vinegar dip, tiny deep-fried pig’s feet bonbons containing meltingly tender braised pork, and individual escargot bourguignon served in shot-glass-sized ramekins topped with a pastry crust. And chef Paul Virant of Perennial Virant summarizes the entire trend with his bar-snack plate of a soft pretzel with grainy mustard dip, deviled eggs flavored with roasted peppers and dill, housemade pickled vegetables and spicy fried corn nuts.
Chef Ryan Poli and his partners at the Mercadito Group focused on the bar snack opportunity at their wildly popular new Spanish restaurant, Tavernita. A separate area within the restaurant houses Barcito, a Basque-style pinxto bar with a menu of classic Spanish snacks such as patatas bravas, crispy fried potato chunks topped with chorizo and spicy aïoli; small toast rounds topped with the eggplant and red pepper relish known as escalivada; blistered Padrón peppers tossed with sherry vinegar and sea salt; and tiny fried croquetas stuffed with Iberico ham and drizzled with saffron aïoli.
Italian bar snacks known as cicchetti are also showing up on Chicago menus. RPM Italian serves fried olives stuffed with fresh mozzarella and sausage, roasted Peppadew peppers stuffed with provolone and small, crispy fried dough circles tossed in shredded Parmesan called pasta trombas. And the menu at recently opened Ombra is composed entirely of cicchetti, featuring more than 30 snack-sized items, including salumi, fried vegetables, grain salads, grilled meats, seafood and vegetables and the tiny, crustless Italian sandwiches called tramezzini.
The Chicago dining scene is increasingly dynamic, as the number of new restaurant openings remains high, and the city’s chefs and restaurateurs continue to elevate the creativity, variety and individuality of their menu offerings.
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